Café de Flore.
The Café de Flore,in the 6th arrondissement, is one of the oldest and the most prestigious coffeehouses in Paris, celebrated for its famous clientele.
It was here that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and other famous thinkers of the 1940s and 1950s, had their tea.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: ''We installed ourselves completely: from 9 to 12 am, we worked, then we had lunch, and at 2pm we came back and spoke with friends we had met, until 8 pm. After having dinner, we received people with whom we had fixed an appointment. This could seem strange to you, but at this Café, we were at home''.
Surely, just the right kind of place for a philosopher like Jim Holt to ponder the big questions.
See my review of his book ''Why Does the World Exist''.
Indeed, it is good to be a little wiser.
And, Barbara Strauchs book,
''The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain'', certainly
makes us all a lot wiser about older brains,
and the world we will soon all be living in.
For sure, more wisdom is needed in a world like ours, a world full of love of betrayal.
See my review of Robin Dunbars book ''The Science of Love and Betrayal''.
Why Does The World Exist?
Amazon review (5 stars out of 5)
of Jim Holts book Why Does the World Exist?
Great book by Jim Holt. As reviewer Karen R. Long writes:''So much in middle-class life and literature is rote: We decide what to have for dinner, we floss, we pick up something to read. Hurray for Jim Holt''.
The books starts with Leibniz's simple ''Principle of Sufficient Reason''. nothing is without a causation, everything must have a reason or cause.
The principle has been mocked, as mere ''metaphysics'', but it is a bedrock of science, where it actually works.
If the principle is valid, there must be an explanation for the existence of the world, whether we can find or not.
Holt starts his quest to find an answer by asking Andrei Linde, of ''chaotic inflation'' Big Bang fame, how the world was made.
Linde ''Can't rule out the possibility that our universe was created by someone in another universe, who just felt like doing it''.
Good to know...But unfortunately, Linde hasn't quite figured out who made the universe.
Lindes inflation theory of the Big Bang says that a baby universe blows up like a balloon in the tiniest fraction of a second. If the creator had written someting on the surface (like ''I made this'') the expansion would make this message exponentially huge, and impossible to read for creatures living in a tiny corner of the universe.
Maybe that is why we haven't found a signature anywhere?
Others are less impressed with the question ''why is there something rather than nothing''.
A student asked Colombia University philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser the question, and he apparently answered back: ''Ohh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn't be satisfied''.
Still, the question is important. Ignoring the question is a symptom of mental deficiency. At least according to Schopenhauer: ''The lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence itself is to him''.
But not an easy question, not even for Schopenhauer. For him the universe was one great manifestation of striving, one vast will. And will is essentially suffering. The will is either frustrated and miserable, or sated and bored. The only way out is to extinguish the will and thereby enter Nirvana - which is as close to non-existence as we can get (Indeed, Buddhist-like thinking).
Others have been more optimistic, sort of.
And there have been many attempts to explain how the world and its creatures came about.
Spinoza reasoned that all of reality consists of a single infinite substance. Individual things, both physical and mental, temporary modifications of this substance, like waves on the surface of a sea.
For him the world was divine, eternal and infinite, and the cause of its own existence.
John Archibald Wheeler conjectured that the human mind (itself) plays a critical role in causing the world! It is our consciousness that gives reality to it as a whole. The world creates us, and we in turn create the world...
Imagining the total absence of everything is tricky though.
Think of the lights going out all over the cosmos. The sun disappearing, the stars extinguished etc.
Have you then succeeded in imagining absolute nothingness?
French philosopher Henri Bergson tried imagining this universal annihilation, and thought it was impossible.
There was something left, his inner self.
It is difficult to come to absolutely nothing...
Actually, space itself isn't nothing. Having removed everything from a part of space, there is still the Higgs field, and a swarm of virtual particles, that ceaselessly wink in and out of existence.
Indeed, perhaps, we shouldn't be surprised that there is something. Perhaps that is the more natural state after all?
In the book Jim Holt even succeeds in locating a philosopher who finds the existence of our world utterly unastonishing (Jim Holt notes that almost any ordinary reflective person finds the existence of the world astonishing).
Philosopher Adolf Grünbaum thinks we all got it from religion. The spontaneity of nothingness is a Christian concept, inspired by the doctrine creation ex nihilo.
God brought the world into being out of sheer nothingness. And afterwards, God is also the sustainer of the world. Indeed, the world is utterly dependent on God for its continuing existence.
''Either you have a hunch that the sheer existence of the world needs an explanation, or you have a hunch that it doesn't. Grünbaum stood firmly in the latter camp, and no intuitions about the alleged simplicity of nothingness were going to move him''.
According to Holt: ''If, as Aristotle remarked, philosophy begins with wonder, then
it ends with Grünbaum''.
Holt even tries out an idea about retrocausation on him. Here an entity in some distant future, at an ''Omega point'', reaches back in time and causes the Big Bang that brought the whole show into being.
But, apparently, with little effect (on Grünbaum). Because, what is time?
According to Leibniz, time is merely relationships between events. In a world without change,
there is no time. Newton, on the other hand, believed time to be absolute, holding that time transcends the physical world and all that
goes on in it.
Here, Grünbaum echoes Leibniz (and followers), and thinks it is meaningless to talk about time before the Big Bang. Absolute and outside our world.
And without absolute time, creation of the universe (from nothing) is indeed a tricky thing to imagine.
Then there is simplicity. For most scientists, ''simplicity is nothing less than a
guide to the truth''.
According to physicist Richard Feynman: ''The truth always turns out to be simpler than you thought''.
Simplicity is ''part of what we mean by explanation''.
Complicated realities are more improbable then simple ones, and therefore stand in
greater need of explanation?
Indeed, Richard Dawkins uses this to make a case against God, as the creator of biological life:
''Any God capable of designing a Universe, carefully and foresightfully, tuned to lead
to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity, who needs
an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide''.
Dawkins, obviously, thinks that the simplicity of natural selection is the best explanation for biological life.
And Dawkins certainly doesn't think the God Hypothesis possesses the scientific
virtue of simplicity (that good theories possesses):
''How could a being who created and sustained a complex universe like our own, a being supposedly capable of monitoring the thoughts of all his creatures and answering their prayers
(such bandwidth...), be simple''.
Well, maybe our world just isn't simple? Maybe, it is just our brains that have some limitations that lead us to prefer simplicity?
There is just too much complexity out there. In the beginning of the twentieth century our universe was thought to consist of
just the Milky Way galaxy. Now that galaxy is just one of billions or so galaxies. And that is just
the observable universe.
Actually, the Big Bang could be a fairly routine occurrence.
Creating endless numbers of universes.
Maybe, we just want to hold on to the simplicity we can get?
Holt continues by asking theologian and philosopher Richard Swinburne to comment on
some ''Dawkins-like'' thoughts about simplicity and creation: ''If God created the world for a purpose,
if he has complicated designs for his creatures, then his mind must contain complicated thoughts?
Even if the mind is wholly immaterial, it must still be a complex medium
of representation, must it not''.
Not all that surprisingly the theologian Swinburne replies ''It isn't logically necessary to have a brain of any kind to have beliefs and purposes, God can see all of creation without a brain''.
Trying hard to find a logical inconsistency, Holt then asks Swinburne to comment on
the question ''What if the internal complexity of the creator is just as great as that of the world, does creation then make sense?''
But again, Swinburne comes up with a proper theological argument.
Back and forth it goes.
Simplicity might not be such a killer argument after all.
Arguments for the existence of God.
Holt then continues with thoughts about questions like ''The existence of the world must have been caused by something''.
Which leads to various arguments for the existence of God.
1. The cosmological argument for the existence of God.
Starts by observing that the universe is contingent. It might not have existed.
It must have been caused to exist by some other being. Suppose that
being is contingent as well, then it requires an explanation (According to Leibniz and the principle of sufficient reason). Ad infinitum. Ultimately, the existence of the chain must hit on something which is self-explanatory (Or the chain itself is self-explanatory).
And once the existence of something like a self-explanatory being is deduced, it takes
just a little logical tinkering to show that this being has the properties usually
ascribed to God (Samuel Clarke).
I.e. a self-explanatory being must exist as a matter of necessity. And if it exists necessarily,
it must exist always and everywhere - that is,
it must be eternal and infinite. It must be powerful, since it caused
contigent worlds to come into existence. Moreover, it must be intelligent
since intelligence exists in the world, and must be present in the base as well.
And since it is also infinite, it must be infinitely powerful and infinitely intelligent.
Finally, it must be morally perfect. For being infinitely intelligent,
it can never fail to apprehend the truth of what is good. And, being
infinitely powerful, it can never be prevented by any weakness of its own from
acting in accordance with that truth.
Alas, the cosmological argument is rife with logical errors.
Sure, there is a world, and sure it does seem contingent. But Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason is more dubious. How can we be sure that there is an explanation for everything?
And without that certainty the whole argument collapses.
2. The ontological argument for the existence of God.
In the Ontological Argument by Anselm of Canterbury God must exist as a matter of logical necessity. Since he
possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist.
Not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins dismisses the ontological argument as ''infantile''.
Bertrand Russell started out by believing the argument to be sound, but later
changed his mind.
But what is wrong?
Holt helps us by putting it like this:
- God is the greatest imaginable being.
- A being that exists is greater than one that is merely imaginary.
- God exist.
The first part looks ok, but the second party is tricky. Is it greater to exist that to merely exist in the imagination, and what is the difference really.
Kant wasn't too impressed either. He thought the word ''exist'' was the problem. Existence is not an ordinary property of things like being red or heavy. Absolutely everything has the property. According to Kant, existence adds nothing to the content of a concept. And then it can't be a perfection...
3. Gödel and the existence of God.
Kurt Gödel was one of the most significant logicians in history, and made a huge impact on scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century.
In Godels proof of existence the ontological argument is revived in a strenghtened form.
Does God exist? Almost certainly not would Dawkins say.
But is it at least possible that
there is a God - just as possible as say a celestial teapot in orbit around the sun?
Saying yes here would be a fatal concession for the atheist to make. God is different from a teapot.
He is by definition a maximally great being. His greatness, and therefore existence,
is stable accross different possibilities. So, if God exist in one possible world,
he must exist in all possible worlds. Including the actual world.
If it is possible that God exists, then it is necessary that he exists.
According to Gödels take on the ontological argument.
But, the logic could have been started in another way though. If there is a world where
the maximal greatness is absent everything is reversed.
If God is absent from any possible world, he is absent from all possible
worlds, including the actual world.
Multiverse as a step towards an answer.
After centuries of trying to explain the the ultimate origin of reality - with little luck -
it is then no big surprise that most people have nothing (left) to say. Holt observes that (to many) it is an enigma ''best left to metaphysics,
or to theology, or to poetic wonderment, or to silence''.
The Multiverse enters.
Imagine an infinite set of possible universes (including the historical universe we consistently experience). Some of them have constants of nature fine-tuned to life, others have not (We obviously
live in one where the constants of nature allow us to live. See Anthropic principle).
According to Holt: ''It would eliminate the sense of wonder surrounding the fact
that conditions in our universe are just right for life and consciousness.
But we would still be faced with the mystery of why the laws of nature
are such as to produce the multiverse of which our universe is a part''.
What constructs a multiverse? What more fundamental entities (that we have yet no conception
of) makes time and space? And from what?
Talking to physicist Steven Weinberg about these matters, Holt ends up quoting Weinberg (from his book
The First Three Minutes): ''The effort to understand the universe is one of the
very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of
the grace of tragedy''.
So, well, maybe the multiverse is not the answer, but maybe it is a step towards an answer.
Holt finds mathematicians a bit weird: ''A majority of contemporary
mathematicians (a typical, though disputed, estimate is about two-thirds) believe in a kind of heaven - not a heaven of angels and saints; but one inhabited by the perfect and timeless objects they study: n-dimensional spheres, infinite numbers etc.''.
And ''obviously'', you communicate with these timeless entities through
a sort of extra-sensory perception.
It is all very Plato-like
(As it resembles the transcendent realm described by Plato in his ''Republic''. Plato is not dead at all! Indeed, on Wikipedia one reads: Alfred North Whitehead once noted, ''the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato'').
Platonists do not need a creator, when mathematics by itself is able to
sustain an entire universe.
In one of the funniest part of the book Holt discusses these matters with Roger Penrose.
Does Penrose really believe in a Platonic world? Penrose answers:
''Actually, there are three worlds...
And they are all separate from one another. There is the Platonic world, there is
the physical world, and there is also the mental world, the world of our
Penrose continues: ''It is only a small part of our conscious thought that connects
us to the Platonic world, but it is the purest part - the part that
consists in our contemplation of mathematical truth. Indeed, just a few
bits of mathematics in the Platonic world are needed to describe the
entire physical world - but they are
quite the most powerful and extraordinary bits''.
The young Bertrand Russell also found mathematics glorious: ''Mathematics
possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty''. But as an old man he changed his mind, and wrote that
''Mathematics has ceased to seem to me non-human in its subject matter...
I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics
would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-footed
animal is an animal''.
Holt shares the older Russells views, and is not much impressed with mathematics and Platonists: ''It may be
that we can explain how the physical world works without invoking abstract mathematical
entities, just as we have learned to do so without invoking God.
Mathematical abstractions need play no role in our understanding
of the physical world. They are just glorified accounting devices. Nice in practice,
but dispensable in theory. To creatures of greater intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos,
they might not be necessary at all''.
We obviously want to know what the ultimate stuff of reality really is. And as
it stands, science only reveals how the stuff is structured.
Yet, Holt finds an opening for us...
There is one part of reality that we know about intimately without going through the mechanics of science: ''Our own consciousness. we experience the intrinsic
qualities of our conscious states directly, from the inside.
We have what philosophers call ''priviledged access'' to them.
There is nothing whose existence we are more certain of''.
''Now, this raises an interesting possibility. Maybe the
part of reality we know indirectly through science, the physical part,
has the same inner nature as the part we know through introspection,
the conscious part.
In other words, maybe all of reality - subjective and objective - is made of the same basic stuff''.
If reality is mind-stuff then consciousness must pervade all
of physical nature.
And then of course we are right back with the old greeks and panpsychism:
The view that mind or soul is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived. A panpsychist sees himself as a mind in a world of minds.
Philosophical speaking this is very nice, here ''Consciousness didn't mysteriously emerge when certain particles of matter chanced to come into the right arrangement. Rather, it has been around from the beginning''.
Philosopher David Chalmers takes panpsychism quite seriously, and Holt quotes him for saying that ''Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside''.
Obviously, there are still problems.
Opponents of panpsychism makes the point, that ''what sense does it make, to conjecture that things like electrons and protons are inwardly mental, if you have no clue as to how their micro-mentality gets unified into full blown human consciousness'' (See my Chalmers page, here).
This is all very mysterious, and as quantum physics is also mysterious..., people have suggested that the quantum notion of entanglement could somehow make the micro-mentality agglomerate into a higher mind.
The best of all possible worlds.
Leibniz thought we lived in the best of all possible worlds (and was mocked by Voltaire for doing so).
Maybe even evil is not all bad. Holt notes, ''(Ours) is not a world that is good through and through. But one with the presence of evils to be overcome through noble struggle. Struggle that gives it piquancy''.
Holt doesn't give us any new proofs for what we ought to believe. In the
end it is still up to us.
And whatever one chooses to believe, it will
take faith to believe that (when one starts to look a little beneath the surface).
In the end of the book, Holt interviews John Updike. Updike has a hard time believing Big Bang theory: ''But to believe that the universe vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space - into a tiny point - is in truth very hard to believe''.
''It's impossible to imagine than even the Earth was once compressed into the size of a pea, let alone the universe''. When Holt says that the mathematics says so, Updike is not much impressed:
''There have been other intricate systems in the history of mankind. The scholastics in the
middle ages had a lot of intricacy in their intellectual constructions... What is beauty if it's not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty''.
Indeed, the self can doubt anything, and believe anything. It can doubt that the world, it sees, was different before it came to existence. And the self can believe that it creates everything. Literally, all of reality, when it, the self, creates itself.
So, what can we believe? Descartes famously said ''Cogito ergo sum'' (I am thinking, therefore I exist). Holt notes that many commentators have pointed out that the ''I'' in the ''I am thinking'' is not quite legitimate - All that Descartes really could assert was ''There are thoughts''.
What a great book Holt has written!
Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).
Sixty-five will be the new normal.
Amazon review (4 stars out of 5)
of Barbara Strauchs book The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain.
Certainly, with age, bodily changes are undeniable.
Body weight, glasses, hair and more might all tell
us a story about an aging body.
This is fact, but it is not a fact that there is equivalent decay
inside our heads.
And Barbara Strauch has written
a good book about why this is not so.
Yes, there is change. And some
cognitive functions do get worse with age.
But other cognitive functions may actually improve in the middle
Strauch quotes Margaret Gullette (Brandeis University):
Midlife decline ideology is a focus on decline, self doubt,
shame and embarrashment. It fosters narcissism.
By learning to focus on an ''aging'' body the
twentieth century subject learns how
isolated and helpless he or she is.
People learn that bodily failure
matters more than anything else,
whereas the positive sides of aging ''maturity, competence, compassion etc.'' are not
coded as age associated!
True, at age fifty-five reaction times, learning
how to operate a new gadget and similar, is probably not as fast
as it would have be at age twenty-five. And current society might think that the middle
aged brain is really just declining after it has reached middle age.
But it is simply not true, according to Barbara Strauchs book.
In a longitudinal study, by Sherry Willis and K Warner Schaie, started in 1956 (The Seattle Longitudinal Study) it was found that participants functioned better on cognitive tests in middle age, on average, than they did at any other time they were tested
(The highest scores for four out of six mental
abilities occurs in midlife - logic, vocabulary, verbal memory and
And then there is experience, which might be difficult
to plot on a graph. But experience is obviously important when it comes
to managing other people, what to do as a parent or a teacher etc.
Regulating emotions might also be something that
older people do better than younger people.
Barbara Strauch quotes a study that found the best and brightest
brains to be the ones with the most bias towards the positive.
In the study it is suggested that as we grow older we have to
deal with death, and it therefore becomes more important to
maintain emotional stability - and one way to steer
clear is obviously to focus on the good things. Younger
people need to learn what to watch out for, the negative,
but older people already know about these things.
And (not surprising) older people might be wiser than younger people.
In a study, by Monika Ardelt, a persons wisdom is measured in three
dimenstions: Cognitive (desire to know the truth,
and be able to see shades of gray, not just black and white),
reflective (the ability and willingness to look at different perspectives)
and affective (level of sympathy and compassion for others).
And such wisdom might be easier to gain, if you have a broader perspective over time.
Other forms of wisdom are also desirable to have.
I.e. wisdom can also be seen as an increased capacity to recognize patterns and
anticipate situations, to predict a likely future,
and act appropriately:
If an older brain is confronted with new information,
it might take longer for it to assimiliate it and use
it well. But faced with information that in some way -
even a very small way - relates to what is already know,
the middle aged brain works quicker and smarter in discerning
patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.
Loses and Gains.
Cognitive aging is characterized by both loses and
gains. According to studies, older people might have more trouble
keeping their brains focused:
Shown both faces and scenes, and told to focus only on the faces,
they had more activity in the part of the brain that registers faces - appropriately.
But the area that registers scenes, which should have be suppressed
or inhibited, also became active.
It might not be all bad though:
And the older adults who had the most trouble focusing
also had the most trouble remembering what they say.
Older brains, for just a millisecond - let distracting
and irrelevant scene information in. The older brains
then quickly adjusted and began to block
out such distractions. But in that tiny moment
the floodgates were opened and focus was lost.
This may be how a slower processing speed interferes
with our memories as we age. Our frontal lobes
may take too much time to tamp down interference,
so we get too much neural ''noise'' at the start
(And studies have shown that those who have the most initial
interference also seem to have the most trouble forming
solid memories or staying focused on what they are doing or saying.
Still, a broader less focused attention span, may allow a middle aged
brain to let in more information about a situation - at times
a real benefit in an often chaotic world,
where it is not always clear what will be pertinent in the end.
Indeed, a tendency towards to distraction, if you are thinking
of all sorts of things, can sometimes make you come up
with new associations. And new associations is obviously
a core ingredient of creative thinking.
The older brains capacity to adapt. Young and old brains solves problems differently.
And young and old might not even use the same
parts of the brain to solve the same problems...
Mellanie Springer, University of Toronto found that
Younger adults used mostly their lower-level temporal lobes to solve
a certain memory problem. But older people, who
performed well, instead used their
higher level frontal lobes.
Patricia Reuter Lorenz and Denise Park
of the Center for Brain Health at the university of Texas at Dallas
have rolled these insights into the concept ''scaffolding'':
And even more interesting, it was those adults
with the most education who tapped into this premier brain region.
Which makes the case that brains are set up on purpose
to constantly reorganize and recruit more
brain tissue as needed.
Extremely interesting, Barbara Strauch quotes Park for saying:
Our brains are built to roll with the punches, and
better - or more carefully cared for -
brains roll best.
What we think is happening, is that the brain
is continually building new scaffolding, responding
to the changes and tiny insults by
attempting to rewire and reorganize itself.
I suspect that middle age is a kind of crossroads for all of this,
when the brain either learns or does not learn these new patterns.
Brains that has a ''cognitive reserve'' might not be hit as hard by dementia.
If we maintain good brain health, we build better
scaffolding and our capacity to adapt continues.
Yet a number of recent community studies report that individuals with
a lack of education or low education are more likely to develop
dementia and Alzheimers.
First it was natural to assume that those who were more educated were simply better at
doing cognitive tests and were, therefore, less likely to
be diagnosed as demented. I.e. a diagnosis bias.
No one has suggested - or ever found - that education in any
way prevents you from getting plaques and tangles or becoming demented.
Going to school or becoming self-educated doesn't eliminate
But adding other studies showed that cognitive reserve
might be key to this. I.e a group of patients might have
had Alheimers disease, but did not show it, because of greater reserve
(More intact neurons, and heavier brains than age matched normal subjects)
Yaakov Stern and his team found that demented patients, who
had higher levels of education or occupation declined
and died faster after being diagnosed.
I.e. those who had more education were protected longer
from the impact of disease like Alzheimer.
But other things helped as well. Those who had done
more to activate their neurons were about half as likely to develop
Alzheimers. Stimulating activities
were defined as those in which ''seeking or processing
information'' was central. Reading magazines, or newpapers, going to the library,
doing word games, taking music lessons, or learning foreign languages was all good.
Leisure activities as walking, visiting with friends was also good.
At first this seemed counterintuitive, but it fits perfectly with
the theory of cognitive reserve. It suggest that those,
who can call on more brainpower can hold back the
outward signs of the disease.
Then by the time the disease becomes outwardly evident, its effects are much
further along in the brain. And the patients die much faster.
The way we live our lives can have a very real impact on the
overall power, strength, and staying power of our brains.
And evidence suggest that we can make a difference by what we
do. We can boost our reserve, even when older.
I.e. much of what matters in the brain as it ages,
will depend not on its hardware, but on its software.
You are not just born with cognitive reserve, and that
is the most encouraging piece of this.
It seems to be mallable even in later life.
Its similar to an athlete being better at sports and would
be better protected from heart disease than someone who is
Brains may age better, if they have the capacity to compensate.
If they have learned to switch to plan B by using
additional or alternate parts to do what they need to do.
Take a good swimmer and put a ten-pound weight around his
waist; how does he do then?
The old swimmer, even with the handicap, might still perform
way better than someone who can't swim, or swim badly.
The ten-pound weight is middle age, old age and disease.
A healthy life.
Surprise, not really, exercise, cognitive stimulation, and nutrition
is probably still key to a healthy life.
Being sociable and cheery is also good for both
body and mind.
As we age, we tend to do the same things over and over again.
We fall into behaviours that are more and more stereotypical
and limited. We are not
working as intensely at refining or maintaining the high level of
operations of our brains. Our brains are not acquiring new information.
So, that is why it important to do new things. Learning
to play the piano, or similar.
Self image is also important. Memories of old
people improved, if they are primed with positive words
about aging (wise, alert, sage), and
declined with negative words (like decline, senile, dementia and confused).
Barbara Strauchs book is obviously important as
society gets older.
There are already more than 500 million
people worldwide sixty-five and older. And the number
is just expected to increase over the coming years.
Eventually most people will be sixty, seventy or
eighty years old. Or even older.
Probably, sixty-five will soon be the new normal.
It will no longer be acceptable to treat people
over sixty-five as irrelevant. On the contrary, these
people will likely be the majority, and understanding how
they work, and how their brains are, tremendously important.
So, you will be glad to know a little more about it.
And Strauchs book is a good first step in that direction.
Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).
Love and Betrayal.
Amazon review (4 stars out of 5)
of Robin Dunbars book The Science of Love and Betrayal.
I always enjoy reading Robin Dunbars books. And this book is no exception.
It is always very interesting to learn more about evolutionary psychology.
Put in love and betrayal and it becomes a real page turner.
Dunbar has a true gift for making (biological) observations, that are obvious, but at the same time very thought provoking.
Surely, evolution is sometimes a strange designer.
And, perhaps, by now we shouldn't be surprised by strange
bodily functions or weird evolutionary psychology
- But certainly,
it is still interesting to hear about:
E.g. why is the reproductive tract sitting where it is? Dunbar explains:
An accident of history...hundreds of million of years earlier...
On pairbonding in humans, the conventional explanation is that it requires
two to raise human offspring. But why mum and dad? Why not mum and granny?
had resulted in the reproduction tract passing through what became the bones of the
pelvis rather than over them. A more sensible arrangement would have been
to have the urethra and reproductive tract coming out just below our belly
button. That would have saved no end of problems later.
But evolution is not that good on foresight, and later generations are often
stuck with the unfortunate consequences of past evolutionary consequences.
Why do human females give up all possibility of reproducing just when they are at
their peak of maternal experience and skill at around forty-five years of age?
I.e. we are used to the male-female pairbonding, but Dunbar has a point
that a lot of other possibilities exist, when it comes to raising offspring.
The conventional explanation for this has always been that
the timing coincides with the point at which the daughters start to reproduce.
Mum give up reproducing herself to help her daughters.
In the end, in his opinion, human pairbonding might really be about females seeking a protector,
Dunbar makes a comparison with the chimpanzee world (Chimpanzee's do not have
permanent pairbonds. Instead a male locks on to a female, as long as she is in
oestrus and willing to mate. This rarely last more than a few days, and
the male then moves on to another fertile female):
If chimpanzee females are teetering on the edge of coping with the levels
of harrassment they incur in communities which typically
number fifty individuals, then the pressures on human females once
community sizes increased significantly beyond, say a hundred, must
have been increasingly intolerable. The need for a protector overwhelming.
Kissing is another weird evolutionary thing.
According to Dunbar it is probably all about testing the health and
genetic make-up of prospective mates (Health is obvious, as poor health
is reflected in bad breath and a sour taste in the mouth. Genetics has to do with things like the immune system, where research suggests that we choose our partners on how
their immune system compares with our own. I.e. we tend to prefer people with
different immune systems, allowing us to have offspring with a wider complex of immune responses).
A little less rational thinking might sometimes be the rational thing to do.
Evolutionary psychology is where things get really interesting.
And Dunbar provides plenty of interesting examples.
E.g. when you are looking at your partner. (Here) Rationality might have been tampered with.
Evolution might have engineered us to be illogical, for logical purposes...
Dunbar tells us about a 2004 study by Anreas Bartels and Semir Zeki.
Here the researchers scanned the brains of people who declared themselves to be deeply
in love, while they were looking at a picture of their beloved one.
Bartels and Zeki found there were increased activity in a small number
of areas that are involved in various ways with emotions and emotion evaluation
(parts of the striatum in the midbrain, the insula and the parts of the cingulate area in
the cortex), when looking at the romantic partner, while some areas
in the prefrontal, the temporal cortex and around the amygdala show reduced activity.
Turn down the amygdala, as this region seems to be associated with fear, sadness and
aggression. You don't want that when you are looking at your love.
Activity should also be turned down in the temporal lobe and
in the prefrontal cortex. Areas associated with mentalising and rational thought.
I.e. turn down the rational thoughts and critical thinking, when you are looking at your partner.
And turn up parts on the midbrain that is activated in reward contexts.
Which will likely release some dopamine (giving us a little reward and some
positive feelings, when we see the love).
Doing all of this and you might stay in love a little longer.
A clever piece of evolutionary engineering indeed...!?
Physical pain and the calculation of social pain.
Pain is a good way of making us pay attention and
do something about our circumstances.
Interestingly, social distress, where there is a mismatch between
our expectations of how our relationships should be and how they
actually are, can also cause real (physical-like) pain.
According to Dunbar, during the course of mammalian evolution,
the mechanisms for alerting us to social situations has taken
over some of the mechanisms for alerting us to psysical pain, because pain is this
brilliant way of making us pay attention.
Indeed, love and betrayal is really important to us, as important as actual
Calculating how much pain you should feel in a given social situation
is a pretty complex affair though.
Obviously, the amount of pain felt varies from person to person,
and from situation to situation.
And calculating the exact amount of pain will depend on activity in many brain centers.
Sometimes we will not feel much pain, even though the situation itself might be painful.
And, some people will not feel any pain at all. E.g. patients who have previously suffered from
uncontrollable pains, might have had parts of their brains surgical removed (the anterior cingulate
cortex, ACC), in order to make them less sensitive (to pain) [p. 167].
Sometimes the brain itself might dial down some painful situations, if the prefrontal cortex
makes a value judgement and inhibit the ACC. Saying, this is really not that big of a deal,
forget about it.
Still, some social relationships are so highly valued that
even the prefrontal cortex can't just overwrite (other centers) pain signals.
And, there are differences between men and women when it comes to social pain.
When men are threatened, they often respond with physical aggression, whereas women tend to respond with verbal or psychological aggression.
Because mens responses are less psychological damaging, conflicts
among male friends might be more easily forgottan, than
conflicts among women that are expressed verbally, and more
often involve insults (that is less easy to forgive and forget).
When our brains calculate the amount of social pain we should feel, it is indeed a complex task...
Luckily, it is not all pain and social distress. Humans have other brain modes as well.
Where other rules apply.
In intimate relationships, especially romantic pairbonds, touch is key.
According to Dunbar:
We might learn a lot from facial expressions, but a touch is worth a thousand
words. We learn so much more from the way a person touches us than
from anything they could possibly say.
Still, it takes a clever brain to calculate what it all means,
in this human game of love and betrayal.
Simon Laub (Let me Google that for you).